Mesh networks now vital for critical data comms

Soldiers with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment (2CR) conduct dismounted operations during Dragoon Ready 2023 using the Integrated Tactical Network (ITN) capabilities, which include 2-channel Leader and Manpack radios, single channel radios, and Nett Warrior end-user devices for communications with personnel in the Strykers and command post. The event served as the second ITN operational testing event (Ops Demo Phase II) for Capability Set (CS) 23 (US Army)

One of the obvious pitfalls in relying on data for tactical advantage on the battlefield is the vulnerability of communications networks. The more data you rely on for Command, Control, Communications, Computers Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or C4ISR, the more vital network access is. Globally, the military has a wide spectrum of options to handle multimedia communications, but different rules apply on the battlefield.

Today’s battlefield can be spread over vast areas with different types of terrain, access and operational risk. Traditionally, combat units have used centralised communications networks, where communications needed to connect to a central hub, such as a base station or satellite, to communicate with other units on the field. Meanwhile, longstanding microwave relay systems have required direct line-of-sight (LOS).

The key risk of traditional communications is vulnerability, because the limited number of transmitters and hubs become high value targets for an adversary. A central hub provides a single point of failure. So, in order to have scale in the traditional world, there needs to be redundancy provided in the form of another central hub. In addition, communicating over an extended area means that distance, terrain and weather conditions can degrade signals.

Tactical radio systems have long been in use to provide combat units will localised voice communications, such as the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) developed by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and ITT. However, the data demands of both battlefield command systems and central C4ISR centres, require different solutions.

Mesh networks solve these issues by connecting the Internet of Battlefield Things (IoBT) as network nodes, requiring no central communications hub. Wireless radio devices (which could be housed in any asset, on or above the field) automatically locate one another and establish a data network. Data transmissions hop from one unit to another, maintaining signal strength. LOS is not required, so even if nodes are located behind a hill or within a building, units can still receive signals that have been relayed through other wireless nodes.

Most important of all, is the resilience that mesh networks offer in a combat scenario. There is no single point of failure in a mesh network. If one node is eliminated or goes offline, the network ‘self-heals’ by finding another route. Thus, mesh networks automatically adjust and optimise according to the availability and position of network nodes, which could be command vehicles, AMPVs, helicopters, UAVs or connected soldiers.

As battlefields become increasingly transparent, leaving forces more exposed than they’ve ever been before, the ability to share data in real-time is absolutely critical and network outages can have dire consequences. Mesh networks provide a real breakthrough and are currently being implemented and integrated across domains by UK, US, and other Nato militaries.

by Carrington Malin